aiare avalanche 1

Today was the third and final day of my “avy 1” course, taught by Sierra Mountain Guides. This marks the second wilderness-y course I’ve taken where the school portion was in an RV park’s common area, the first being my WFR.

While it’s still fresh in my head, here’s my thoughts on the course. Most of this is the AIARE curriculum mind you, none of my negatives are at the feet of Sierra Mountain Guides. In fact, they’re a super top notch organization. My instructors were experienced, personable, and solid at teaching.

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Avy 1 is a whole bunch of people poking around in the backcountry. Part of my class.

There were maybe ~24 students in the class with four instructors, and folks traveled from San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles for the course. Only a few of us were locals. Additionally, the snow this season has been utter garbage so it was hard for our instructors to really show us dangerous snow conditions because frankly there is almost none in the Eastern Sierra right now.

What went well and what I think the big takeaway is that I learned the framework of how to properly prepare a safe backcountry trip. I learned how important your companions are, how much you need to gel with them, and how much risk you can dodge by terrain selection. If you eyeball the fatal avalanche data, you can note that slides under 30 degrees are rare. And 30 degrees is actually pretty steep, if you look at something like “the wall“. So if you stick to intermediate-esque backcountry runs (with nothing bigger around or above that can run-out into you) you’ve effectively eliminated your avalanche risk: poof-walla.

There’s obviously more to learn in 3 full days time than the above paragraph, but hopefully it shows that there are smart terrain choices you can make that slash your risk considerably.

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Digging and studying snow pits.

Possibly the least interesting part of the course for me was the snow-science itself. On SAR I’ve learned that everyone has some stuff they’re really into and other stuff they’re just not as excited by. Maybe you like rigging, maybe you like medicine, maybe you like snowmobiles: you probably aren’t interested equally in all three but in SAR you have to be trained on a dozen different disciplines whether you’re into them or not.

It was very cool to learn about the layers that exist in the snowpack and how they relate to avalanches. But ultimately there is no magic fortune cookie at the bottom of a snow pit that will tell you whether something is safe. You just get more data:

  • Data from the terrain (angle, aspect to the sun, etc).
  • Data from the avalanche advisory bulletin that covers that area. Ours is the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center.
  • Data from poking your poles / probe into the snow.
  • Data from looking at the snow. Was there an avalanche 100 yards away from where you are now? Is there a big ass cornice staring at you? Etc.

In reality you need to know the faceting and depth hoar processes as building blocks to understanding what they do in a snowpack which of course means you need to know how to identify them in the first place. If you’re venturing into avalanche terrain, and even just knowing what avalanche terrain even is, you really should get trained up.

Thinking a little harder, another thing about this course versus most of my medical ones is that in medicine it’s about people’s lives. It’s important and you cannot screw it up. With avalanches it’s almost always about allowing people to recreate and have fun, which just doesn’t have the reality check that exists in rescue medicine.

I guess I’ll see you in the backcountry, but I’m sticking to the coward slopes. They’re safer on the way down and easier on the way up.

summer vs winter

Summer finally got started a couple of weeks ago in early August. The insane 16/17 snowpack left much of the High Sierras covered in snow all the way through July and the melting snow created happy breeding grounds for mosquitoes. When not sliding on hardpack snow you were getting eaten alive by bugs: party time.

But no matter: I could still go for a run, ride my bike, climb a rock, and drive off road. These things and many like them are laughable pursuits mid-winter. There’s a lot to be said for just hopping in your car and driving away, without thinking about warming it up, scraping ice, timing the snow plows, and digging. The digging never stops.

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Super cool part of living in Mammoth: “going out for a walk” looks like this.

But just like that, the thermostat space heater in my office clicked on the other morning. Instead of having our bedroom window wide open at nights it’s been slowly closing more and more until last night when (with three blankets) I woke up cold and shut it completely. Pellet prices go up in a month. There’s less than 90 days until Mammoth opens for skiing/boarding. In short: #WinterIsComing.

And winter is a pain in the ass, don’t get me wrong. Everything is harder. Your hands are in gloves nearly all the time so doing any kind of detailed work outside (automotive, construction, etc) is brought to a halt. Travel schedules get blown out, and portions of your home (like a deck or yard) become effectively off limits.

But with that comes simplicity as well. Armed with a season pass, a board, and some insulated clothes I can spend copious amounts of free time shredding. With my new splitboard this year and snowmobiles (cool kids call them sleds) for sar I need to qualify on, there is a lot to do. The days are shorter and the activity options reduced so “lazy summer days” are a thing of the past. It’s time to hustle either to stay alive (pellets, shoveling, driving and not dying) or time to hustle to enjoy life.

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Winter. One night did this.

When you walk out and see your truck sitting there looking like the above, and you have a list of a few things that need to get done that day, things get very straight forward.

I had a friend who told me that people who live in far northern (and far southern) climates tend to be harder working and more industrious than our more equatorial and horse-latitude dwelling brethren. The idea being that in areas with harsher seasons you have to figure out your winter plans and equip yourself during the summer or you simply won’t live to see spring. Conversely in a more mild climate you can get still go out mid winter and find some food, plus you won’t freeze to death.

Obviously modern society has negated this a bit and not a lot of folks are dropping dead in our mountain town of malnourishment. The Donner Party excluded, the rest of us can find something to eat at Vons.

I’ve been reluctant to write about the 16/17 winter because of how powerful it was and like a victim of abuse every cloud still makes me jumpy imagining three feet of snow is about to drop. Not knowing what’s in store for next winter is part of the fun: will it be another snowpocalypse, fueled by some new twist of climate change? Or will we get barely any snow and my cool snowgear will just collect dust as I lament the snow-less terrain.

Stay tuned.

it’s all about eagle

I wrote a previous article about getting to the slopes and I think it’s still pretty accurate early season. And really, most of the logistics is particular to where you’re at. If you’re in a ski-in/ski-out location right by Main Lodge, that’s obviously a lot different than being down in Bishop.

So the applicability of this will depend on where you’re coming from, but hopefully my own experiences can be useful. In short, I fell in love with Eagle.

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Powder day, Canyon Lodge. One hour after the lift was supposed to open, we’re all still waiting for “fresh tracks” : dumb.

For me, I avoid Canyon and Main in general for two reasons:

a) They tend to be mobbed. Canyon has 4 chairs (excluding roller coaster) and a massive lodge infrastructure. Main is where most of the team programs are and the parking is basically dog shit even if you get there on a good day. This can be mitigated by rolling into The Mill (chairs 2 and 10), but that’s not really Main.

b) The stuff to do at Eagle is just better, especially when it’s soft or recently-powdery.

On the last point, chair 25 (south side of Lincoln Mountain) has some of my favorite terrain on the mountain for powder days. Super steep so you keep moving. A near infinite amount of lines to choose from, and because the only real ways back down to 25 are single or double blacks it doesn’t tend to get too mobbed. Additionally, unless you’re a jacked up steroided thug you can only ride so many double blacks in deep powder before your legs are cooked so no one’s hanging there all day anyway. There are also gazillions of trees, chutes, and rocks so it doesn’t generally turn into a mogul field.

There’s also chair 9, which even when busy is still a 6-pack chair that covers a ton of ground. Bonus: it’s definitely the most wide open and random long run on the mountain. As it basically offers you access to a big valley that’s a quarter mile across and over a mile long.

Even more of a bonus, as long as you head left off the Eagle 15 chair (skier’s right), you can access chairs 9 and 25. From there no matter what you do and how much you screw up, you’ll end up back at Eagle.

To make all this happen, I try to park at Eagle by 7:45am if I’m going over there on a weekend or busy day. That gives me 35 minutes to hang out in Eagle lodge drinking a cup of coffee and reading the news, getting all my gear together. 10 minutes to get into the line and wait for the chairs to spin, and I’m golden.

Rain + snowboarding = suckfest

Trying seeing out of those on a cloudy day flying down a mountain.

There’s an “atmospheric river” overhead which is a warm jet of moisture that lasts days. Too warm, sadly. There’s rain everywhere. Just a few degrees lower and it would be snow. Instead it’s wet during the day and ice at night. I rode in it a bit a couple days back and needing to wipe my goggles every 100′ got old fast.

Lower gondola (g1) line extending to infinity.

Because it rained and froze overnight the lower gondola and Broadway was the only thing open. Worse, Broadway was basically a glacier.

The good news is that some snow did drop and it’s the wet bondo base snow that the mountain snowmaking team loves because it doesn’t blow away and new snow adheres to it.

My new Capita Mercury, staring out a rainy window.

Living up here I definitely get first crack at all the good weather days but I get the garbage ones too. 

A much colder storm is predicted in a few days so we’ll see if that forecast holds and keep waxed up. Today looks like trash duty, laundry, and catching up on work.

good and cheap goggles: spy targa 3

In my continuing complain-a-thon about the cost of snowsports, here’s another way to save some cash: goggles. First off, you need goggles (as opposed to sun glasses or (shudder) nothing):

  • Goggles keep blowing and otherwise airborne snow out of your eyes.
  • Goggles generally have 100% UVA/B protection to keep the sun from bouncing around off the snow and up into your eyes.
  • It’s windy, whether just from the environment or because you’re hauling ass down a mountain.
  • When you crash, you want to keep snow/ice/stuff from hitting you in the eyes. More than just keeping the sun from your eyes goggles offer physical protection.
  • You will get hit in the face with poles, boards, and other hard objections.
  • Goggles tend to come in low-light and bright-light options for super sunny (bluebird) days or cloudy dark days.

You can easily drop $200 for a set of nice Oakley goggles and they are certainly great shades, no doubt about that. Worse, you can not buy anything on your first day and need to pay through the nose at the resort. Instead I offer up what I’m wearing: the Spy Targa 3‘s, which can be had for about $25.

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$60 later, I have three pairs of good-enough shades.

I have a pair of bronze lessons for full light riding, and a rasta-banded set of persimmons for lower light. The problem with wearing the wrong lenses are pretty straightforward: wear low light lenses on a bright day and you’ll be squinting all the time. Wear darker lenses on cloudy days and you won’t be able to make out curves and contours in the snow.

You might have spotted some clear Bolle Mojo‘s tucked in there with the Spy’s. Clear goggles are absolute shit for snow sports: not enough contrast in low light and in sunny conditions you’ll be squinting the whole time. But they’re good for pushing the snow blower around the driveway or other at-home tasks where snow is blowing around.

So if you’re new to the sport and want to be cheap, I’d recommend going with low-light goggles. You’ll be squinting a bit when you look up in the sky but most of the time you’ll be looking down. And if I have to pick between squinting and not seeing all the contrasts in the snow, I’ll take the squint.

getting from your car to the slopes at mammoth mountain

One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is because Mammoth Mountain, bless their souls, is terrible at explaining how some things work. Maybe they don’t want to highlight certain aspects of their operation and instead focus on SHREDDING POW BRAH. But other stuff matters, so let’s talk about dealing with your car.

There is also the Mammoth bus/trolley/shuttle system which I won’t cover much in here beyond the parking shuttles.

Unless you’re coming from outer space, you’ll take the 395 to the 203 to get to Mammoth.

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The 395 to the 203 to shred-city.

Mammoth has three lodges (aka places that have chair lifts, sell coffee, sell lift tickets, and have parking): Main, Canyon, and Eagle. Main is the biggest and is open when the others aren’t as it’s the highest in elevation. Two other quasi-lodges exist that are worth mentioning.

The Village. Open year round, there is a gondola that will take you to Canyon Lodge. There’s also coffee, places to eat, places to lose lots of cash on clothes, and you can buy lift tickets here. But if Canyon isn’t open I’d skip it. There is a bus every ~30 minutes that makes laps between the Village (across the street, near the parking lot) and the Main Lodge.

The Mill. At the base of chairs 2 & 10, there’s a parking lot and a small restaurant. Early and late season chairs 2 & 10 aren’t running, so this might not be the smartest idea at those time. No ticket sales, so you’ll need to have your pass on you as you’re just walking up to chair lifts here. There’s a decent parking lot if you show up early.

When the mountain is “fully open”, that means that all the lodges and all the runs are online and you can pick whatever you like. But figure that out in advance and if you don’t know shoot for Main. Drive your car as far up 203 (Meridian / Main St) as you can and try to park near one of these signs:

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These run A through F (I think?).

A constant stream of free busses run between the Main Lodge and the parking signs doing laps. You probably will only wait 5 minutes, but sometimes in severe weather or really busy weekends I’ve seen it take 15.

If you’re at Parking A, walk unless you’re really beat up or in ski boots. If you’re at B and have the legs (and again, aren’t in ski boots), go for a stroll. C or further down you’re dumb as a post if you walk. Make sure you grab the bus on the going-to-the-mountain side of the street.

Also, even if you want to walk remember that it’s probably windy/snowy/icy and that busses are flying around. It’s not the safest place to be on foot.

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Snowboards go inside the bus, skis have slots on the outside that you can pop them into.

Bring all your crap with from your car that you’ll need for the day. You can always grab the bus back to your car but that wastes time unless you’re done for the day.

Remember what parking zone you’re in, what side of the street, and whether you’re before or after the post. All SUV’s and Subarus look the same when covered in snow.

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Parking zone A, looking up Meridian towards Main Lodge. This is considered great parking.

At the lodges you can also pay $25 to park right up close. Although this is rather dumb for most people, I would recommend it for first time visitors especially those with kids or that just has a big group. It’s hard to know everything you’re going to want and it’s easy to forget stuff when you’re worried about your kids. Also consider that locker rentals are $5 per use. So if you open a locker up and close it again you’re halfway to the cost of having your car right there in front of the lodge building.

Hopefully this can help some folks navigate the rather dizzying web of lodges, quasi-lodges, gondolas, roadways, parking zones, and shuttle busses that Mammoth has to offer.

my diy boot-glove-stuff dryer

Sure, it looks like a crazy science experiment gone wrong. But this thing kicks ass at drying lots of gear so the next day you’ve got warm and dry gear to put on.

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Pellet stove on right, hideous hose beast dryer on left.

I started with a prototype made of cardboard. I’d really recommend that to anyone as you probably have plenty of it laying around and with some tape you can make a design and see how well it will work. In a pinch, you can even get by with a cardboard model for quite some time.

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Believe it or not, this piece of crap worked great for a week as I theorized my final design.

There are two core concepts with a snowsports dryer:

  1. Have everything spaced out so they can dry. This is pretty easy to achieve as you can just hang things up, no big deal.
  2. Blow warm and dry air inside of things like gloves, mitts, and boots. This is the tricky part and why you can’t just leave wet gloves out on a table and expect them to be dry anytime soon.

For $19 I got a 120mm muffin fan that pushes 51CFM. There are more powerful ones, but I wanted something relatively quiet and honestly even with almost a dozen wet items to deal with this fan has been doing the trick.

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How cool: a box with a fan in it.

The fan sucks air into the airtight box, and then you’re faced with the challenge of getting it to your boots/gloves/whatevers. I decided to go a little hardcore and use 1/2″ hose barbs, screwed onto fittings between a piece of particle board. That the whole box was done with 3/4″ ply and particle board was no accident. The hoses are tough and pull on the box. The fan needs to be mounted firmly. You can expect the box to get kicked, bumped, and treated with neglect. I opted to make it beefy.

What’s cool about using barbs like this is that you can get creative with the types of hoses you use after the fact without really doing anything to the dryer itself. I even installed some T fittings on the ends.

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The top, before it went on. 1/2″ hose barbs screwed to PVC fittings on the underside.

Before I put the top on (with all the fittings) I used some foam crack filler to seal up the interior as much as possible. The whole thing is screwed together in the hopes that it can handle a lot of abuse. The fan is rated at 67,000 hours, which at 100/days of service per year running for 5 hours at a clip I should be able to snowboard 134 seasons before I need to replace the fan.

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Top attached, playing with the hoses, getting closer.

For the hose I found 25′ of 1/2″ conduit for $10. It’s pretty stout stuff and maintains its curve fairly well which is a blessing if you want it and a curse if you don’t. I slashed the bottoms that fit over the barbs so they can come off easier, and put little holes near the ends in the sidewalls that go into the boots/gloves.

I can dry 10 items at a time, and the whole thing breaks down relatively easily. I place it (safely) near the pellet stove so there’s plenty of warm air about and no need to add a separate heating element. It’s sort of obvious: after a day of snowsports you want to be warm and dry too so the heater will most definitely be on.

If I had to do another, my shopping list would look like this:

  • 10 pipe fittings, cost around $15.
  • 3/4 ply or particle board, maybe $5-$20.
  • Fan, $20.
  • Hose, $10.

Done cheaply you’ll be in for around $50 and have something that absolutely clowns on the piece of garbage plastic jobbers out there, nevermind you’ll have 5x the capacity and a much longer product life. The only downside is that you’ll have an octopus of death dryer in your living room.